Author: Jim Ober Photo: Trackside Photo
Just over thirty years ago, an unlikely sequence of events led to off-road icon Mickey Thompson winning the Baja 1000. It was 1982, and car builder David Kreisler needed a co-driver or two for his latest creation, a single-seat Raceco Class 1, to enter the Ensenada-to-La Paz classic. He hurriedly recruited Jack Motley to be his co-driver, but Jack had to pull out because of a business appointment. Although the 55-year-old Mickey had announced his retirement from off-road racing the year before in 1981, he came out of “retirement” and signed on at the last minute to do the race along with Terry Smith. The deal was put together so hastily that neither of them had their names on the car for the race.
On race day Mickey took the first leg, but had no idea where he was going to turn the car over to Smith, who would be “somewhere halfway” down the peninsula. He took the lead, but hit a big mud hole that drowned out the VW engine. Thompson, in a moment of sheer desperation, supposedly set the motor on fire with gasoline, and then took off with spectators running in all directions, “I really set it ablaze,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the race. “I jumped into the car, hit the ignition and took off. I got the car to 100 mph as fast as I could. I figured I’d either get the ignition dry, or burn up the car. It was a kind of desperate thing to do, but that’s how you survive in Baja.” With the help of Mickey’s wife Trudy, Smith flagged down Mickey in El Arco and took over the wheel and placed first across the finish line. The Thompson-Smith team had set a new record for a marked Baja 1000 course in a little over 19 hours.
“He was like a little kid,” said Mickey’s son Danny, who spoke to him by phone right after the race. “To him, it was probably the biggest win of his career,” Danny was quoted as saying in Mickey Thompson: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend. Many said after the race that it was because it was not one of Mickey’s creations, a big-horsepower V8-engined car, but a much less powerful VW buggy that carried him to a win. “His average speed in one of our V8s was closer to 60 mph, and we had been imploring him (Mickey) for years to back off, but Mickey was a full-throttle guy,” said John House, Mickey’s crew chief for many years.
Regardless of the circumstances, Mickey and Terry Smith could now add “Baja Champion” to their resumes. A day and a half after the race, Mickey was seen on the front steps of the Grand Hotel in La Paz, still in his driving suit, shaking the hands of everyone who walked by. He wanted to savor every bit of the win.
By the mid 1980s, Mickey Thomspon’s stadium series was at full steam with desert champions such as Ivan Stewart, Steve Millen and a young Robby Gordon all taking championships.
Tragically, Mickey Thompson and his wife Trudy were killed at their home in Duarte, California, in 1988 by two unknown gunmen. The murder, while well publicized, remained unsolved until after 13 years of investigation former businesss partner Michael Goodwin was charged with the their deaths. The initial trial verdict was overturned, but after a very lengthy re-trial in 2007, motocross promoter Mike Goodwin received two life sentences for their murders.
Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports